Why the Vyapam scam is more likely to defeat the CBI than Shivraj Singh Chouhan

Why the Vyapam scam is more likely to defeat the CBI than Shivraj Singh Chouhan
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By the time Madhya Pradesh holds its next assembly elections at the end of 2018, the Vyapam scam may not be a problem for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and state chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. They could well say that the Central Bureau of Investigation is still probing the alleged irregularities with regard to jobs and recruitment at the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, and that the Opposition should await the outcome.

The Congress, the main opposition party in the state, may find it hard to counter this argument. The scam had come to light in 2013, with reports of candidates seeking government jobs and admission in medical colleges allegedly paying bribes to government officials, who in turn allowed imposters to take the entrance tests.

The Congress had spent two years pressing for a CBI probe, even as nearly 50 people connected to the case died during this period, many of them in mysterious circumstances. On July 9, the Supreme Court finally handed over the case to the national agency.

But given the tardy pace of the CBI’s investigation, it’s quite plausible that the case will not be solved within the next three years. More than five months have passed since the Supreme Court ordered the CBI to take over from the Special Task Force in Madhya Pradesh. But there has been no tangible progress so far, with no fresh arrests being made.

The blood trail

Contrast this with the work of Special Task Force, set up in August 2013 to probe cases related to the Vyapam scam.  In 23 months, the STF arrested more than 2,200 people including impersonators, bogus candidates, job aspirants, middlemen, politicians, and bureaucrats. When the STF was disbanded in July after the CBI took over, more than 400 suspects were still absconding.

The CBI has conducted just one field operation over the last five months. On September 24, investigators carried out 40 searches in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. More than half the raids were conducted in Bhopal, as most of the top exam board officials lived there. Among the raided locations included properties owned by former technical education minister Laxmikant Sharma and officials of the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board.

However, the searches did not yield any substantial results. The investigators also traced call details of some of the key accused, but the CBI has refused to provide further details about this exercise.

Apart from taking over 150 cases of rigging from the now-defunct STF, the CBI also registered 18 preliminary inquiries into more than 40 Vyapam scam-related deaths.

However, the bureau only picked up the mysterious death of medical student Namrata Damor for further investigation and registered a murder case against unidentified accused. Damor’s body was found on the railway tracks near Ujjain in January 2012. While the Ujjain police sought to label the death as a suicide, a forensic report that conclusively proved it was a murder.

A student of Indore’s Gandhi medical college, Damor allegedly used fraudulent means to get admission through alleged kingpin Dr Jagdish Sagar. While Dr Sagar is in jail, the CBI has yet to nab Damor’s killers. The investigation into Damor’s death had triggered nationwide uproar over the scam.

On June 29, Akshay Singh, a television journalist, died mysteriously in Jhabua where he had gone to interview Damor’s parents. A day earlier, two accused in different Vyapam cases had died. Narendra Singh Tomar, a veterinary surgeon, died in an Indore jail, while another accused, Dr Rajendra Arya, died in a Gwalior hospital. A day after the journalist’s death, Jabalpur medical college dean Dr Arun Kumar was found dead in a Delhi guest house.

Four deaths in three days alerted the nation to the magnitude of the scam. The subsequent media furore forced chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to agree to a CBI probe into the scam. He had initially resisted an independent probe, arguing that the special task force had been doing a competent job under the supervision of the Madhya Pradesh high court. But the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favour of a CBI probe based on several petitions filed by Congress leaders and whistleblowers.

Reaching the top

While the alleged irregularities date back to 2007, the scam began to unravel with the arrests of 20 impersonators in Indore in July 2013 after they had come to take the place of genuine candidates at a pre-medical test.

Their arrests opened a can of worms. More arrests followed in quick succession as it transpired that not only admissions in medical colleges, but also all the recruitment tests conducted by the professional examination board were rigged.

Things got murkier when the Special Task Force sought to lodge a first information report against Ram Naresh Yadav, the Governor of Madhya Pradesh. However, the STF’s efforts were quashed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which cited constitutional immunity to the governor.

In another twist, the Congress accused Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his wife Sadhna Singh of direct complicity in the recruitment rigging.

With the CBI taking over the probe, the opposition and whistleblowers hoped that the chief minister’s days in office would be numbered. Their optimism was bolstered by the widely-held view that Prime Minister Narendra Modi considers Chouhan a strong rival in the Bharatiya Janata Party and a CBI probe would only make life difficult for the Madhya Pradesh chief minister.

Truth in a hard disk?

Chouhan was also accused of tampering with a hard disk maintained by Vyapam chief system analyst Nitin Mahindra. The original hard disk allegedly had 40 entries of the chief minister’s name in connection with recommending candidates for the assistant teachers test.

In an affidavit filed in February, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh alleged that the chief minister had got the original disk replaced. In addition, Singh claimed that Chouhan had replaced his name with that of former chief minister Uma Bharti and others.

While the Madhya Pradesh high court dismissed these allegations as baseless, the CBI has opted for a fresh examination of the hard disk. On November 3, investigators recorded the statement of whistleblower Prashant Pandey, who had given the supposed original hard disk Digvijay Singh.  A forensic lab in Hyderabad is currently verifing its authenticity and a report is awaited.

“I am optimistic that the CBI will take the probe to its logical conclusion,” said Pandey. CBI spokesman Devpreet Singh has also promised that action will be taken against those found to have tampered with the evidence.

The Congress, however, isn’t as positive. Party leaders feel the CBI will act against Chouhan only with approval from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who they feel will not risk destabilising any BJP-led government on the issue of corruption.

Complex case

The current situation is in stark contrast to the alacrity with which the CBI began the investigation.

On July 13, a CBI team comprising more than 60 sleuths arrived in Bhopal. They occupied several rest houses and visited the Special Task Force office to take over the Vyapam case files. There appeared to be a sense of urgency about the operation.

Shortly, however, CBI officers realised the vast complexity of the scam. Their focus shifted from investigation to seeking adequate staff.

In August, the CBI told the Supreme Court that it was short of manpower and had a backlog of 1,237 pending cases. But a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice HL Dattu was unmoved.

“Whether it is simple, complicated, complex, super-complex… we don’t know, but you will take over,” Chief Justice Dattu told Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, the CBI’s counsel. “You cannot say that some cases the STF will continue to do, some others the Special Investigation Team will do, and some the CBI will do.”

Two months later, the CBI once again approached the Supreme Court about being short-staffed.

“The colossal task of investigating 107 cases pertaining to alleged corruption and nearly 50 cases pertaining to the suspected deaths related to the Vyapam scam, having more than 2,000 accused, cannot be met with the existing manpower and infrastructure of CBI,” said the agency in its status report submitted before the Supreme Court.

The CBI has sought sanction for 496 posts. This would require an overall expenditure of nearly Rs 80 crore.

According to CBI spokesperson Devpreet Singh, the agency’s demand for setting up a special branch for Vyapam scam has been notified. This will enable the investigating officers to avail of housing facilities in Bhopal and other places in Madhya Pradesh.

Having got its special branch proposal approved, the CBI is looking for officers across its branches to work on the Vyapam scam. This exercise is likely to take a long time and till then investigation will be slow, if not altogether dormant. It’s uncertain as to when the CBI will finally begin investigating the high and mighty in connection with the scam.